Prof. John McKinnell
University of Durham, Department of English Studies
Emeritus Professor John McKinnell has authored numerous scientific books and articles ranging from medieval theatre studies to Old Norse mythology. His research interests include Old Norse literature and medieval texts and theatre. Professor McKinnell is also a member in the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.
In his keynote lecture, Professor McKinnell will address the range of moral and emotional responses to incest in mythology and heroic legend. In particular, he will focus on examples that invite sympathy for gods or humans in cases of incest despite their traumatic nature.
‘Breaking the bonds of kinship’: Legal and Emotional Attitudes to Incest in Old Norse Literature
Incest, however it may be defined, is forbidden in most human societies, and in many cultures it is difficult even to talk about it. This paper will discuss a range of ‘official’ attitudes towards incest in Old Norse law and historical writing, and will then consider how legendary and mythological sources made it possible to approach its complexities in more nuanced ways.
Grágás, the thirteenth-century Icelandic code of law, is emphatic in its criminalisation of any sexual relationship between second cousins or closer relatives (including those related only by marriage), and even stipulates fines on marriages between third and fourth cousins, despite the fact that in a country with such a small population such strict rules were bound to cause problems. Some literary works from the Conversion and early Christian periods suggest that incest between first cousins is as socially destructive as fratricide or parricide, and Snorri Sturluson’s account of how the tenth-century King Haraldr grenski is first enticed and then murdered by his foster-sister Sigríðr suggests that while some heathens may have indulged in incest, the loss of honour involved in it was still taken extremely seriously.
However, some legendary sources seem more sympathetic to the characters involved in incest, at least when they are initially unaware of their blood relationship, as in the story of Helgi and Yrsa, or impelled by the need to take dynastic revenge, as in that of Signý and Sigmundr. Some of these liaisons even result in the birth of outstanding heroic kings such as Hrólfr kraki and Knútr, the ancestor of the historical line of Danish kings. This may be explained by the responsibility of such kings for crop-, animal- and human fertility, which linked them to the Vanir gods. Mythological sources such as Lokasenna and Ynglinga saga show that sacred brother-sister incest was an important feature of the cult of the Vanir, who were principally concerned with fertility and wealth.
This may help to account for the pre-Christian origins of some legends about incest, but it doesn’t explain why those legends continued to be popular throughout the Christian middle ages. The answer to that question may be that legend can often be the vehicle for an ‘unofficial’ wisdom which looks beyond legal and ethical codes and can include a more sympathetic emotional understanding. In chapter 17 of Hrólfs saga kraka, when Yrsa’s treacherous husband Aðils offers her compensation for his killing of her ‘husband and father’ Helgi, her response calls Helgi þann mann, sem mér er mestr vandi við ok ek unna mest ‘the man to whom I have the greatest obligation and whom I love the most’. The law would have been on Aðils’s side, but the saga implies a different outlook and suggests that human love cannot and should not always be constrained to obey the rules.